Charlie Pierce has been among hand-sawn woodpiles, sawdust, oil paints since the day he was born, and grew up sharing duck blinds with some of the region’s most esteemed carvers. Naturally, it’s in his blood. A colorful storyteller, Pierce describes growing up in this unique environment, telling how and what they hunted, the decoys used, and how those old school influences lead him to carrying on a family tradition.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, where today I am in Easton Maryland at the Waterfowl Festival and all things surrounding it. I mean, talk about being neck deep in American waterfowl hunting antiquity and tradition and culture, buddy, this is it. Chesapeake Bay is right over here, not too far from here. The Choptank River is just a mile away. Today’s guest is Charlie Pierce. He is the son of Mr. Jim Pierce, who you all heard previously and I’ve really got to know him, we hunted together in the duck blind, we’ve had some great conversations, while Mr. Jim was getting ready for the podcast episode, I got a full tour of an ancient, knee deep and saw dust and paintbrush decoy shop right there in Charlie’s backyard. And I thought it would be a great follow up to kind of like a part II. Hunting is a handmedown tradition, right? And Charlie, his tradition was handed down from Mr. Jim, he was 88 years old and has been carving decoys for 75 years and I thought this was just a really good topic to cover today, growing up in the Chesapeake Bay region, carving these traditional decoys. Charlie, how the heck are you, man?
Charlie Pierce: Good. How are you?
Ramsey Russell: I’m good, I’m good this morning. Yesterday was warm, we go out there to that duck blind, it was warm, like a crappy fishing spring day warm or brim fishing almost and I stepped out of the hotel this morning and it feels like duck hunting weather out there.
Charlie Pierce: It does now.
Ramsey Russell: Wish I was out there hunting ducks again today.
Charlie Pierce: You’re not kidding. This week is going to get cold, it’s going to be good.
Ramsey Russell: It’s about dang time.
Charlie Pierce: It is.
Ramsey Russell: It’s about dang time. Charlie, I want to start with you growing up in this area, you grew up in Easton or thereabout?
Charlie Pierce: Havre de Grace.
Ramsey Russell: Havre de Grace, Maryland, which is, as your dad explained historically, a fishing village on the Susquehanna Flats right there. What was it like growing up in Havre de Grace?
Charlie Pierce: It was really unique. I mean, I thought it was growing up was normal until I got older, because everything when I was young had to do with decoys, it was either from being down Mr. Mitchell’s shop, just the hunting. My dad had a commercial fishing license, so we were out fishing nets. I thought everybody did it, though, it wasn’t until really high school, because all my friends either their family was involved some way with hunting, fishing and I got to meet a lot of people.
Ramsey Russell: You’re about my age, you’d have grown up going to middle school, high school in the 70s, 80s, did a lot of your classmates hunt?
Charlie Pierce: Absolutely, they did. Because in that area, especially fishing, but you hung out with people that were similar to you, so we did. I mean, there was a lot of my classmates that I hunted with and I still do.
Ramsey Russell: What species of ducks did they hunt in association with the Chesapeake Bay.
Charlie Pierce: Back when I was growing up, canvasbacks were out at that time, we shot blue bills, redheads, a lot of mallards, wood ducks especially, though, because a lot of people, you had the creeks early season, right where we live, when you came up the other day, you didn’t drive past their place, but it’s right on the Susquehanna River, basically a half a mile from it. So we hunted up the river a lot and that was because certain places in Maryland up the river, you had to have worked at the Conawingo Dam to be able to hunt there or your kids do. So I was lucky, I knew people and my brother in law, he has places up there, so it was really neat to get chances to hunt up the river and we did really well up there.
Ramsey Russell: Did any of your classmates hunt over plastic? Did anybody –
Charlie Pierce: No, not really, because you wouldn’t believe the decoys we used, from goose decoys, they were like foam with headset that people have made that been passed down from my cousins and people in the family that were 50 years old and every year we’d fix them up. We’d put sawdust with fiberglass on them and do them down. But a lot of wooden decoys, some plastic, but not, it was more like we used herders and stuff like that, the old decoys, but we’d always have to repaint them up and do all that stuff.
Ramsey Russell: Meanwhile, I’m down in the Deep South, same era and when I got into duck hunting, born in 90s, serious duck hunting in the 90s, it was all plastic, everybody used plastic because all it was plastic. When in your life timeline did you realize that owing to where you grew up and the novelty of being on the Chesapeake Bay in Havre de Grace with legendary carvers for as far back as anybody can remember, hunting over wooden decoys and handmade decoys was much different than the remainder of the United States. When did that dawn on you?
Golden Era of Decoy Production: Examining the Flourishing Industry of Wooden Decoys Up Until the 1960s.
And I like the old factory decoys to actually see them and they’re very valuable today. I mean, you had the Masons, it’s so amazing.
Charlie Pierce: What’s crazy is there was factories that made wooden decoys. From Wildfowler Evans Company, up until I would say the 60s, where we had – even when I was a kid, there was flambeau, there was this, but they didn’t look like today, it’s amazing how realistic the plastic decoys that they make now. There’s always issues, well, does the paint stay on? Does this or that? But we just grew up the traditional way, basically. And I like the old factory decoys to actually see them and they’re very valuable today. I mean, you had the Masons, it’s so amazing that even back early on that there was factories that mass produced decoys and then you had all the local people that did it, too.
Ramsey Russell: You grew up there in Havre de Grace, you grew up there on the Chesapeake Bay, all these old wooden decoys. Did your neighbors Mitchell’s or any of the carvers around there, did they seem more to you like something I go out to shoot birds over or more like collectibles? Folk art at the time. Did it ever dawn on you that all these decoys floating around in these boats and under houses and down in garages and basements and in sacks were folk art?
Charlie Pierce: Yes and no, because even old decoys, when I was young, it could have been a 1910. I was the kid that wanted to put it in a bathtub to see if that 1910 decoy floated right. To this day, old decoys, it doesn’t matter when they were made, who made them, if they’re worth a load of money, I want to see if it actually works like it’s supposed to work. And it’s neat, last year they had the – I’m trying to think – there’s a club that they take old decoys and they’ll pick a carver every year and they’ll float them all and they might have 30, 40 of them like a little rig and they’ll take a punt gun and someone will simulate that and they’ll video it. And it’s neat when you’ll have from Graham decoys or whatever decoys that are from the 1800s, early 1900s in a rig like that. And it takes a big group of people because you got to call 100 to people to try to get just 3 dozen of them right.
Ramsey Russell: You bring up a good point, is a decoy really and truly is meant to float, it is a tool. I think I mentioned to your dad the other day, a decoy that is carved and sits on a shelf collecting dust the rest of its life really doesn’t have a soul, it doesn’t have a story. I love seeing, I walked into an antique store the other day here, there’s all kinds of antique stores here in Eastern Maryland that just got decoys and other memorabilia, but just unknown carving, just unknown decoy makers, but when they had BB holes in them, I stop and I look and I wonder what happened that day?
Charlie Pierce: If they could tell a story.
Ramsey Russell: Did the guy on the other end of the boat say, hey, going to be shooting my decoy you son of a bitch. Well, they ain’t going to sink like plastic for one.
Charlie Pierce: Exactly.
Ramsey Russell: You just got to wonder, it’s got a story, it’s got a history to it. What are your earliest memories of your dad carving? What’s your earliest memory of realizing what your dad did or who your dad was or where his place was in the annals of Havre de Grace.
Charlie Pierce: It was ingrained on me early because he made decoys and he had different shops gone to Mitchell’s when I was a young kid, but from the time I’d say 8 or 9, where I remember everything, they had asked him to get involved in doing museums. So the Northeast Museum was the first one. So it was more of a heritage of fishing and hunting, but that’s when you’re a little kid and you can see, they’re putting these artifacts in and it’s different carvers and you see an original sink box that they’re redoing and then it makes you think, well, how did this work? And then you want to read about it. It amazes me how sophisticated the guys were back 100 years ago and how amazing a lot of the carvers were that they didn’t have all the machines and stuff of today, they had a hatchet. And I got a video of a guy, Jim Courier in 12 minutes from a block of wood, he could take that hatchet and make a perfect body.
Ramsey Russell: It took a little practice.
Charlie Pierce: And it amazed me, too. Because they took so much pride. Like all the guys you’ll see back in the day, they had their bow ties on, they were dressed up in their shops, they were working away. I don’t know, I think you lose some of that, the pride in your work with people today that we grew up. I don’t care what you were doing, if it was raking the lawn, whatever, you did the best job you could, there were not better be any leaves in the yard. Where I think kids today, you lose some of that, I don’t know what you call it, but it’s just different. And that’s one of the reasons, how I make decoys. I mean, we try to do the best you possibly can, not cut corners. That’s why I don’t take on loads of orders that we can’t really fill.
Ramsey Russell: Whether it’s your decoys or your dad’s decoys or Mitchell’s decoys or Courier’s decoys, the Holly decoys, do you think they were spending so much time to make these ultra-realistic as best they could with their hands in a hatchet decoys, was it as much for the ducks or for the consumer? Were they trying to give eye candy appeal to those buyers back in the day? And I tripped out the other day, when your dad said he can remember selling these decoys for 35 cents.
Charlie Pierce: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: And I want to say to him, here’s $100, I’ll take everything you got in the shop. But seriously, do you think it had to do with a little of both? Because you don’t need that ultra-realistic decoy to get a duck in.
Charlie Pierce: I think competition. I think times they had to make money, a lot of times it wasn’t their first job, so that competition, there was so many carvers. If you were a boat builder, you made decoys on the side, so many people carpenters did and I think that that’s how it evolved to where got to make this look a little better for this guy to buy, because it was mostly the wealthy people that bought the decoys.
Ramsey Russell: I heard a story the other day, I wish I could remember who told me this story. I heard a story the other day that your dad knew the Ward brothers and used to go back and forth. I mean, their decoys were selling for $5 or $10. Ward brothers, I saw the oldest, chunkiest, cracked up, beatenist, no paint Ward brother decoy the other day in town, it was $16,000.
Charlie Pierce: Yeah, absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: They were selling them out their door, these beautiful antiquities for $5. But your dad, because he knew him, it’s like he did some work down there, he was working for maybe a telephone company or something as the story goes and he knew them and they knew him and he would bring decoy, they say, oh, you’re going down there, well bring me some decoys back. Can you elaborate on that? Do you remember that story? Have you heard that story?
Charlie Pierce: Many times. He became friends with them through the telephone company, like you said, because he would do a lot of work down here. And when I was a kid, sometimes we’d be staying a motel, like in Salisbury or whatever during the summer for maybe a weekend, we’d do stuff around the area because there would be months that he’d be away from the house. So the Ward brothers, it’s really weird, they never made really any money themselves, it was always the secondary market and after they passed away – it’s amazing how beautiful their work was. But I’ll never forget –
Ramsey Russell: It’s like an artist that’s just sitting on a street corner doodling and after he dies, boom, he’s in museums.
Charlie Pierce: Right. But I think people realized at an early time that they were something special. The Ward brothers, they knew that because people collected them, it really wasn’t until like the 70s where people started collecting decoys, where they started getting the auctions and all that, where they became art, where maybe someone who’s not into decoys will buy that as part of their portfolio, because some of those decoys are out of control, they’re in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Ramsey Russell: When did you start carving decoys? Do you remember your first decoy?
Charlie Pierce: I don’t really remember my first decoy, but I was always from a little kid in the shop, I can remember getting paid a nickel apiece to spoke shave bodies. And I got good at it, so I could make $5 an hour, then always putting the weights on the rings on, priming the decoys. So I was always doing – at an early age, I can remember be at Mitchell’s and I think they just wanted to get rid of me because they’d throw me outside, Mitchell had a whole across the street, a yard that had all the wood in it and it would be cedar poles and all this stuff and they gave me the old time wood denailers, you remember those? And they would just let me for hours, I had to go out there and just pull the nails out of those old telephone poles. But I remember that and I actually liked it.
Ramsey Russell: Talking some character. Your dad told the story and I just thought it was so great, he was 13, 14 years old, I guess like a lot of curious, bored teenage boys like to hang around with the old guys, watch what they were doing and decoy carving was very much a part of the Havre de Grace aura and Mitchell wasn’t going to let him just stand around, after a period of time, he put a broom in his hand, said, no, we don’t just stand around looking, we work. And from a little boy looking over Mitch’s shoulder to a kid handed a broom, he’s now been carving decoy for 75 years, no differently than a little boy same shop sent out with a denailer to pull nails out of lumber.
Hub of Artistic Mentorship: The Vibrant Community of Carvers Passing Through the Generations in Your Dad’s Shop.
I didn’t get to show you pictures of a young Patrick Vinceni, Dave Walker, Butch Wagner, Brian Boat, a lot of the people that came through that shop.
Charlie Pierce: And what’s neat in my dad’s shop, a lot of the carvers that are the generation in between me and my father came through his shop because my dad was never one to – If you wanted to learn how to make a decoy, you wanted to work, come there. There was always a lot of people in the shop and that’s one thing I missed when you came up the other day, I didn’t get to show you pictures of a young Patrick Vinceni, Dave Walker, Butch Wagner, Brian Boat, a lot of the people that came through that shop that today are excellent carver that are at Easton set up and stuff.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I’ll be back and we’ll do a part II on that tour right there. But have you ever had all these decoys you’ve carved, starting from a little boy with a denailer and spoke shaving decoys and priming decoys, it’s like they just started with the most rudimentary and you just kind of built your way in. Like, talk about start at the bottom and build your way up to CEO. But I just had this question, somebody that’s only carved 30 or 40 crew decoys in his life, have you ever had any sentimental attachment to a decoy you carved, like you just didn’t want to sell?
Charlie Pierce: Yeah, I have. I started with my dad before, I was always just doing all the grunt work, basically. And we still do like, I draw knife all the heads, like the old days, like they did it back in 1900, we don’t machine any of the heads that a lot of people do. But I guess once I made it across from my dad in the paint room to where kind of like you’re not equals, but you made it that far to where you’re the second guy in line, it’s him and then you, where it took me probably until, I got out of college, maybe 1995 and then he said to me, he said, hey, from now on, everything in the shop, we’re just going to split, whatever we do, you deal with the orders, you deal with this and that made me feel good. And then when we do like ornamental heads, sometimes I would always put something to get him to do a little different for myself to put away for Christmas on. And then it was with my son, my son’s 23 now, but every year I would try to get him to do something odd to put it away. And then now I do that with me, I’ll make something different and just put it away for my son and I’m sure one day he’ll have kids in the whole 9 yard.
Ramsey Russell: The other day I showed up at the shop and got a tour and it was just everything I dreamed a 75 year decoy shop would be. The first thing that struck me was no different than my little bitty shop, it was just the smell, just a combination of sawdust and paint thinner and paints and dust and just history and time spent in there laboring over these decoys at an artist shop. Several times during this podcast so far, you’ve mentioned ship mast or telephone poles, we started, we went all the way down the basement to where you all and then we went outside and you all had just cord wood, piles of wood. Talk a little bit about the materials, because it seems to me that the further back in history you go and maybe even today, it’s not about a perfect block of wood or a block of cork or whatever you store by and have delivered via Amazon, it’s like the history of gunning decoy works around here with just whatever piece of wood you get your hands on. You even showed me some decoys you were working on refurbishing, they were cork decoys, but they’ve been used.
Charlie Pierce: Yeah, they were made by Mitchell.
Ramsey Russell: And they needed more work. I mean, they had to be updated.
Charlie Pierce: And you talk about that, a fellow that I met yesterday at the show. In the old days, when they got wood, they either got the telephone poles or they would take down old barns from Pennsylvania, you name it. Because the beams most of the time were white pine and it was great because it was like first growth.
Ramsey Russell: That’s the favorite wood, white pine.
Charlie Pierce: White pine around here because it was available, cedar up north. But you can’t find any first growth unless it’s in a barn today of white pine, of how it was, it’s beautiful wood.
Ramsey Russell: The growth range, tighter growth range, because it was older grown.
Charlie Pierce: And because today everything’s manipulated to be grown in 30 years, it’s a mature tree, they can use it for something. A fellow bought a full size swan and my dad had 4 of them that were actually turned from the Harley Davidson factory of beam in there in Pennsylvania because it was big enough to do it. When they made a new plant, they got. And like, when you were there, like the mass from that, it was a bug eye from the fellow in the book, the Chesapeake, that James Mitchner wrote, he is the captain that they talk about in that boat, his family, a friend of mine knows them and they’re down in Cambridge where you stayed, they still have a marina down there and he got them and I’m going to try to make. It’s hard when you have smaller wood, when we turn bodies, you want the heart out of it so it doesn’t crack up. But on those it’s small enough where you’re going to have to put it dead center of the decoy. So I’ll end up using like a fiberglass or something like that to coat the decoy so it doesn’t crack up. But it’s neat. I mean, we get wood from so many people, I have so many friends that do clearing jobs, but for white pine, you got to cut it from mid-December to 2 weeks in January or it’s worthless to make ducks because it has too much in it.
Ramsey Russell: Do you go out and chainsaw that stuff yourself?
Charlie Pierce: Used to, too old now. I’m lucky, I got people, I have a friend who has a mill that’s close to us. So we’ll get the trees from different people, then he’ll cut them up in cants and then we’ll bring it to the house.
Ramsey Russell: That’s all very interesting. How long does it take you to make a decoy?
Charlie Pierce: I don’t know, we never make one. We brought up, you can make –
Ramsey Russell: Kind of turn them about batches, a lot of bodies, a lot of heads.
Charlie Pierce: 12, 24. Used to do it in really big batches, like say 200, because then we could sit down and paint them all and it might take a couple of weeks or whatever, but since my father’s gotten older, it’s better to do like 8 of this and then another 8 and another 8 because he can sit there and also it makes it so they are consistent and they’re not sloppy, basically because you get tired as you get older painting. But when he was younger and we’ve painted 100 canvasbacks in a day and 6 hours. I mean, he could paint, to this day, he don’t even have to look at the decoys, he can just paint them, he’s done so many.
Ramsey Russell: Does your style of painting and decoy, because here’s what gets me, is I come up here to the Chesapeake Bay, walk down the aisles of New Chesapeake Bay decoys and they all kind of sort of look the same. But you guys can say no, you all can point out a hundred different carvers based on subtle shapes, subtle sizes, subtle body styles, subtle tail up sweeps or down sweeps or paint strokes or little minute, what I’d call signature details. Does your style of decoy the way you express a black duck or a canvasback or a blue bill, is it the same as your dad’s? Did he most influence you or were there other decoy carvers in the greater community that you said, I like the way this guy does it better?
Charlie Pierce: For years I helped, obviously, my dad number one, but Charlie Bryan, who was from Middle River, I helped him for a long time, put all his decoys together and he was a very detailed person and he taught me a lot of stuff, I loved a lot of his patterns, but he made more decoys that had keels on them that were flat bottom, but he made round bottom, if you were going to hunt wherever in big water, because like you saw yesterday, sometimes in flat bottoms with the keels, they’re not going to flip right.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Charlie Pierce: And I tell you one thing, when it’s cold and you’re throwing out decoys you want that decoy to flip over, you don’t want to have to mess with all of them or the wind push them over like you’ll have in plastic decoys. Plus, just in rough water, wooden decoys are just, they just work better, but you say the subtleties from people. I guess the number one thing that all them guys cared about and the patterns, like it might take me 2 days to make a new pattern of something, it’s got to be right, I mean, it’s got to float right. You got to look at it in different conditions to make sure that where the waterline is going to be you can’t make a decoy where in a little current it’s going to be drugged down the front of it, it’s still for a purpose the decoy is made for.
Ramsey Russell: It’s just so interesting. Back when the internet was invented eBay came along and opened up my world and I bought a dozen decoys, boy, I tell you what, Madison Mitchell, for example. I called my wife and said, you ain’t going to believe what a great investment we made on that pair of decoys I bought because I bought them for a little nothing on eBay and they’re worth a whole lot more now. But I had a pair of blackhead decoys, maybe Jim Pierce carved it, I didn’t know. But I sent you a picture of it and right off the bat you said, not, that’s Paul Gibson. What did you see? What are you looking for that kind of stuff?
Charlie Pierce: I can tell on just by his brushstrokes on the back of the decoy and his tail feathers and that’s mostly the differences and the head, the carving because a lot of the head patterns are so similar, but just how he painted. My father, he painted a lot for Paul too and I have a lot of Paul Gibson decoys, he’s not as popular as Mr. Mitchell as a collectible thing, but he did such a great job and every one of them he has maker and painter on the bottom. He had like Mitchell shop, there was loads of people in there helping because you can’t do it on your own. I mean, you have to have help, when Mr. Mitchell is making 3500 ducks a year there’s no way he could individually do that. So that’s why there was 10, 15, 20 people helping. Now, Mr. Mitchell was very particular, he’d do all the painting, but there’s plenty of times he didn’t touch the duck till it went to the paint room, basically. And Paul Gibson, I think that’s why he painted it. It was just a smaller operation, he wasn’t as sleek as Mr. Mitchell or anything, but he made a great decoy.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of carvers to this day. I mean, new generations of carvers. Just driving to your shop the other day, I passed by a couple of them and there’s a lot of carvers around here. And one thing that struck me about this conversation so far, Charlie, is on the one hand, you’d kind of sort of think that all of those carvers were competitors, be some cutthroat competition going on like parts of the modern day hunting industry today, but you describe it, it sounds like just a fraternity, a community of friends and associates. There was just so much market that it didn’t matter, it was enough for everybody.
Charlie Pierce: Right. Especially, like today, there’s not many people that make decoys full time. There’s me, the Jobes, Charles and Joey, but anytime somebody gets behind, you need help doing something, everybody’s so helpful, because we’re doing the same thing locally. I don’t know how that is far away, I don’t know many places where people make ducks like we do. But the people that I’ve come into contact with that make the decoys, they’ve always been nice and they’ve always wanted to help out.
Ramsey Russell: Tell me some hunting stories, what was it like hunting with your dad? What was it like growing up hunting? Or did you hunt with your dad? Did you all go out because he talked about going out with his family and bush whacking?
Charlie Pierce: I did. It was really fun.
Ramsey Russell: How did you all hunt and did you bush whack?
Charlie Pierce: I did not.
Ramsey Russell: Okay.
Dwarf Sunflowers and Limitless Doves: Recalling the Abundance of Dove Hunting in Sunflower Fields 40 Years Ago.
And so Charlie Bryan, his son, my father and me on Tuesdays, we would go dove hunting.
Charlie Pierce: I mean, I’ve been in the boat before, but that was a little bit before me. And I look back now and it was just, I had an incredible young from my childhood on, because I got chances to hunt where normal people don’t get to go to hunt, but I didn’t think anything about it then. But if I did well in school, on Tuesdays, he would take me dove hunting to a family down here, the campers that he was good friends with and the Brian family, Jamie Weston, there was Rennie Gay, my dad knew them all. And so Charlie Bryan, his son, my father and me on Tuesdays, we would go dove hunting. And they had sunflowers back, before people would have the dwarf sunflowers, you’re looking at 40 years ago and never did I ever go there where you didn’t kill your limit of dove. And he would always have interesting. There’d be 10 people in these fields, but we were the only 4 constants every week, that’s how I met the Shawbers for the first time, who were carvers, met unique people, because you couldn’t hunt dove till 12:00 PM, that’s how it used to be work. And you could shoot 12 then, now you can shoot 15. But always when we were done and at the time, I didn’t want to do it, but you always had to sit down and we’d have to have dinner at the fellow’s house. And I’m a young kid and I’m like, I want to get home, because for us, it’s like an hour and 45 minutes up the road until after about the first year and then I started really getting to know them and really appreciating it. But it was more of like an event, if you didn’t accept that dinner, that was terrible. And then gradually, from goose hunting down here, the same family, we would goose hunt 2 or 3 times and then through them, other people that would –
Ramsey Russell: Was it a dry field goose hunt or -?
Charlie Pierce: Both.
Ramsey Russell: Talk a little bit about, now that we’re getting into waterfowl, talk a little bit about the decoys you all used over dry field and the decoys you all used over water. Did all these carvers just show up with their own personal decoys put them together?
Charlie Pierce: When I started hunting on my own, I mean, we used tire decoys.
Ramsey Russell: I see one, Charlie had one the other day, like a modern rendition.
Charlie Pierce: We used a lot of frame stilled silhouettes out in the field and they look good. I mean, they were painted up and everything, not your just normal silhouette. And they even before me, but I thought it was neat because I have some of my dad’s, there’s full size goose decoys that you put in the water, but they had a hole in the bottom of them with a copper, it almost looks like an insert that they’d use them in the field also those full body decoys. And as time evolved, then we started getting using big foot a lot, the big feet decoys, because you could screw them in and you can put them in a trailer and you can put a load of them out. But now everybody’s back to silhouettes again, like the old days.
Ramsey Russell: Come full circle. Talk about the duck hunt. Did you duck hunt on Chesapeake Bay any or creeks or the rivers? Talk about, like, how did you hide? What were the blinds? Just talk about the whole experience of hunting with a guy in Havre de Grace that for 75 years, carved decoys and all his associates carved decoys, that’s what I’m wondering. What was it like?
Charlie Pierce: It was always different. I mean, it was from in Christmas trees, making blinds out of Christmas trees, I hunted with my dad on, a guy had a T on his golf course and had a fountain and all these geese were coming into the fountain, it was the craziest thing. There was a flag on one side and the guy wanted those geese out of there. So we just put Christmas trees up and we got those geese out of there, but from most of the time blinds, field blinds, some pits, but as my dad got older, obviously I love hunting out of a blind because it’s easy and you don’t mess up many shots. Lay out blinds on the ground, older people, they always got to shoot -basically, they’re halfway laying down when they’re shooting. A lot of water blinds because he had a farm he was in with a fellow when I was growing up that I was the kid who had to put out all the decoys for him and get everything set up ahead of time. But at an early age, too, he let me go on my own, so I had my own field, hey, you do what you want with that, there was a pit in there and it was a lot of trial by error. I would get so frustrated because I could get geese in, I could call geese like we were talking about the old calls and then I’d do all that work and then I’d miss them. So then it made me like, okay, I put a lot of effort in, so I don’t know, I’ve really appreciated it.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, that sounds like some good old days right there, it really does. One thing that struck me yesterday, I got to hunt with you, Mr. Charlie McCurdy invited us out to his beautiful farm and weather didn’t cooperate, but it was still just an incredible morning and throwing those you all’s decoys out, there were some wood ducks from some other carver, but there were some of your teal and wigeon and mallards, he’s got a whole wall full of Pierce decoys that he hunts over. I had the thought when I stood back and looked at it all, like, I need to go home and throw away all my plastic, I just need to throw all them made in China, son of guns away and go back to this. We had that PBS film crew out there yesterday, which was an experience in and of itself in a good way, but they weren’t hunters, which is why they were there and I just noticed in the dark, as I’m tossing decoys, one of them, the first one, think, he said, wow, they ride themselves, I said, yeah, that’s not by accident. A lot of skill and time goes into that, doesn’t it?
Charlie Pierce: It does. Like we talked about it before, we still make decoys back when, say, everybody’s using wooden decoys, so all the patterns. One of the reasons why people wanted to buy my dad’s decoy is because he went above and beyond the quality of the decoy. Like to this day, if it fits for a hunting rig, the wood is perfect. There are no blemishes, there’s no sap, there’s no knots, where a lot of people, it’s the opposite. We throw away more wood than we actually use for the ducks because he’s always taught me to be – the quality is important because you want that bird, them guys are going to hunt with it. There’s guys have been hunting with the same ducks for 60 years of my dad’s on the Potomac River all over the place. And them ducks still are held up and when you come up next time, that’s why I said, if you wanted to go over and meet this morning at my friends, he has probably 500 ducks of my dad’s from hunting ducks. And he has an old rig, there must be a dozen black ducks from Dr. Chambers in 1956, he’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated and he’s body booting up on the flats. Some of the decoys that were there were my dad’s black ducks and they’re actually labelled, he has some of that rig that has his stamps on him from Dr. Chambers. So it’s cool, too, when you can connect the decoys with some of the guys back then who hunted because I think hunting back then was way more accepted as a way of life than it was today.
Ramsey Russell: It was. And that hits a lot of different angles about times changing. And those boys from PBS had me on a rope yesterday, asking me some questions that challenged me as a hunter and as a part of the hunting culture and as a part of an era that maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my perspective that things seem to be drastically changing point in case, I think it was Charles Jobes brother in law stopped by there a couple years ago at his shop and was talking to him and his brothers and dad just got to show me some of the stuff, the body booting rig and stuff in the backyard. And his brother in law told me something very interesting I hadn’t forgot. He said, back when we were young, body booting is a very arduous expedition, lot of decoys, lot of weight, all them wooden decoys, they ain’t light and he said back, the old timers, we were the young guys, we were the teenagers, we were the kids, we were the strong backs and that’s how we got into it and we learned the ropes, but we were there for the labor, he said, the old guys brought us young guys to muscle it. He said, now I’m the old guy and there’s nobody behind me, I’m still the muscle, there is no young muscle. Even here in Havre de Grace, even on the shores of Susquehanna Flats, there’s a drastic decline. I bet if you talk to some of the local high schoolers today as compared to the 70s and 80s here in the 2020s, how many of your classmates hunt? Probably not very many of them.
Charlie Pierce: You’re right. And it’s just different. One of the funny things, I can remember my dad dropping me off at the park at 05:00 in the morning when I’m 13 years old to get on a boat to go body booting with the older guys because I was like the younger guy then. And that was what made me feel good, too, when you got to an age where those older guys accepted you as, hey, this kid can shoot ducks, he can hold his weight instead of having to watch him when you take him hunting. But you’re right, there’s not as many young people. And you talk like Charlie McCurdy, great guy, what he has done for the habitat there, which you hit a lot with the PBS. And much like you said the other, it’s expensive, unlike when –
Ramsey Russell: Time and money, it’s a commitment of time and money.
Charlie Pierce: I don’t know, in the old days you could just go someplace, knock on a door, sure, hunt here, those days are over.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, they’re over. Access, I think is a very limiting factor, very limiting factor.
Charlie Pierce: I agree. But I do. I try to get people involved and I don’t know what the answer is.
Ramsey Russell: I’m going to circle back real quick. You grew up, your dad was in the shop all the time, he’s running a business, but as I understood the other day in the quick nickel and dime tour of you all shop, you weren’t predestined to follow in his footsteps. I mean, there for a period of time, you weren’t going to be a decoy carver, not like a career decoy carver. You actually broke away, went to college or moved off or did something. Talk a little bit about that story and come back, I want to know why. What happened? You broke off, you kind of went off the trail into your own path forward in your own way, but then boom, you’re back.
Charlie Pierce: I think there’s really two reasons. One is when I went in college, what I actually studied, business administration, finance degree and I did an internship with a company and I saw these other people around me and that had a real passion for that and I didn’t. I mean, I could do it because I was halfway bright, but it didn’t.
Ramsey Russell: Wasn’t your happy place.
Charlie Pierce: It wasn’t my happy place. And I was thinking, what am I going to do to make a living that – am I going to do something and hate it and just make money or I’m going to do something that I like? And at the same time, my dad retired because he worked for the telephone company at 55, that was the deal. When I got out of college, he had retired –
Ramsey Russell: So he had a real job working for a telephone company and he carved decoys.
Charlie Pierce: And he had the shop and people worked at the shop and he retired. And when I was growing up, yes, we’d go hunting, but I didn’t see my dad that much because he was always working, he worked his regular job. Then he came home and the one thing is dinner 05:00, he got off at 04:00, we ate dinner, you discussed what was going on, mom had dinner ready, me and my brother and that was until, say, 05:45 or 06:00 he’s gone down to the shop or gone down to Mitchell’s to paint or do whatever he was doing and that’s every day. So when he retired, that’s really when I got to know my dad as a person.
Ramsey Russell: When the 9 to 5 ceased, that’s when you really got to know your dad. Till then, you knew him when you were hunting some, you knew him at the dinner table, but he was working, it was that generation that worked all the time.
Charlie Pierce: And it was neat because we got to – from fishing to, you name it, when I came back to the shop, he took me to do so many different things that me, I wouldn’t have been able to do number one, but to meet so many incredible people, which is really neat.
Ramsey Russell: Tell a story, did your dad ask you to come to work with him?
Charlie Pierce: He did. Here’s the thing, when I got out of college, I was going to take off a year, I was just going to, hey, am I going to graduate school and I was going to work at a bank, county bank. And it was actually the second year that I got out of college because I still was down there. And when I came back, he had so many people in the shop, but it was all pieced. Like, you’re getting paid to do this, like breast and tail bodies, you’re getting paid and I’m kind of like, particular and I saw that a lot of these people that he had working there were just doing it to get money, I didn’t think it looked like they could have put more effort into it. Because they’re getting paid, but they didn’t have that passion and that’s when I approached them about, hey –
Ramsey Russell: You hit on a good point. You can never pay somebody, hardly, rarely, that job, their task is going to be anything more personal than a paycheck.
Charlie Pierce: Right.
Ramsey Russell: That’s all it is, a paycheck. Here’s what I do, here’s I get paid, then I go home and do my thing, whereas you and your dad.
Charlie Pierce: Well, if you’re going to put your name on something, you want it to be right.
Ramsey Russell: Amen. Great point.
Simplicity in Decoy Artistry: Embracing a Simplistic yet Effective Approach to Decoy Painting and Design.
I want people to be pleased. If something happens to one of our decoys that you bought, we replace it 100%, we don’t charge nothing.
Charlie Pierce: And to this day, that’s how I am. I want people to be pleased. If something happens to one of our decoys that you bought, we replace it 100%, we don’t charge nothing. We repair decoys, we do whatever. It was really neat growing up. Okay, what did you think? You see all the different decoys, obviously, how we do decoys, it’s hunting, it’s pretty simplistic paint. When you got here and saw all the different types of carvers, like when you mentioned the Ward brothers earlier to me, how amazing back in 1920 that those guys are making those ducks like that to hunt with.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. So your dad asked you say, come to shop with me, the first thing you said is, I will, but I don’t want these paid employees here. I don’t want these guys that are just here for them paycheck.
Charlie Pierce: Some of them. Like at the time, Danny Carson was there, Danny was excellent, still a good friend today. He actually went on his own and made decoys, but there was 4 or 5 guys there that they needed to go on anyway, too, they needed to figure out what they were going to do.
Ramsey Russell: Move on their next stage of life.
Charlie Pierce: And they were great. I mean, I hunted with them, we were friends, but it wasn’t going to be a career thing for them and that’s one thing that’s hard. You can tell a lot about people, you can teach them to say a simple thing breast and tail ducks, if you show them and after they’ve done, say, 500 or even spoke shaving, 500 ducks for you, if every time they come there, you have to show them how to do it and they didn’t pick it up already, then you know they’re just not into it. There is people that make decoys that you can see that they got to a point and they never got better, why is that? I have no idea. Because every time when I make the decoys, there’s always something wrong, every time you do it, you’re trying to get to that point, which you’ll never make that perfect decoy or whatever. I don’t know what it is about people, but to this day I have people that help me and you’ll see the people, you’ll start them out that will make it and actually be really good, but then you’ll see the people that they act like they want to learn how to do it, but they just don’t get it.
Ramsey Russell: What about your own children, your son? Is he going to be a carver? Is he going to join you in the shop one day?
Charlie Pierce: I think he will as a hobby. I mean, he helps me, he came home now and he’s running bodies because I’m behind on stuff. But he just graduated college, he’s in that year thing and he’s going to go back to graduate school and then we’ll see where that leads him. But I pushed him away from that because I wanted him to try to figure out –
Ramsey Russell: They need to.
Charlie Pierce: What he wanted to do and then that’s fine if he comes back or whatever, what he wants to do. The kids today are different because they have so much more of outside influences, we didn’t have all the cell phones and all that stuff growing up. And my son, it amazes me and a lot of his friends, they love that urban like inner city, he lives in Arlington now, but he likes to getting on the trains, they all go to work like that. Most of his buddies have decent, mostly tech jobs and things like that, but they like that, where I couldn’t do that, I got to live in the country. So it’s just different.
Ramsey Russell: Yesterday to share first hunt together, Charlie, yesterday was an interesting experience. My buddy Sean Weaver called me Thursday night and said, hey, could you take these guys out? I’m like, sure, Sean, I’ll help you any way I can and what a great guy Sean Weaver is. I tell you what, as an old guy, I sleep good at night knowing that somebody like Sean Weaver, who you may or may not know is coming up to replace us. He’s a very thoughtful and considerate and passionate waterfowl hunter himself. But anyway, I had no idea what I’d get myself into. So I called Charlie and said, Charlie, you don’t care if I bring this film crew with me, you said, no, bring if you want to. I really, truly had no idea because it wasn’t a hunting show, it was a documentary about the entire crew, none of them duck hunted had ever been around and some of them had never hunted a day in their life. But the whole purpose was, as I understood it, the purpose of this extensive 6 hour documentary is how humanity interacts with wildlife and how wildlife shapes humanity’s culture. So I had no idea what I was getting into. For all I know, there’s going to be, a lot of be behind it, ma and you’d be sitting there talking in the blind, it wasn’t like that at all, but I was exhausted when I left. They had old Double R on the rope, baby, it hit me up a question I never thought about, very hard questions that made me look inward and start examining what I do and how I do it, it was very thought provoking. You had no idea, you just thought me and you was going to hunt together.
Charlie Pierce: I just showed up and then I’m like, you got to defend, hunting is basically what I was.
Ramsey Russell: I’m honored to have such a great opportunity to speak to what is going to be primarily a non-hunting audience about the virtues of hunting.
Charlie Pierce: So you had no idea that the question –
Ramsey Russell: I really had no idea where that was going to go. I had no idea it was going to be an extensive interrogation in a open minded way. What was it like sitting on the far end of the blind, because thank goodness you were looking, we had one crack at duck, you’re the one that saw them coming and alerted us.
Charlie Pierce: It was interesting the conversation and I didn’t know how it was going to go honestly, when it all started, I didn’t know even though they were going to be there. But the questions that he asked were thought provoking. Because I’m thinking to myself, how would I answer that question? Because then I think, well, this is going out to an audience, probably that 90% of them don’t hunt. So what is their perspective going to be about this duck hunt that we’re on today? Because that’s basically what they filmed and how you advocate for the duck hunter and how it’s in your heart, basically and what you believe and just teaching about how ethical hunting and different things, I think it made them have a different perspective on this duck hunting and how you told them that if it wasn’t for the hunters that funding, all the money that comes in, so we have that resource, it’s not going to be there. No one else is putting the money in to try to save the resource or if they are, you have to fight for it and you have these organizations that have to fight and fight to get that funding. I mean, I want to see my grandkids be able to duck hunt.
Ramsey Russell: I do, too. My greatest fear that we’re walking through the end of an era and I do regret saying that out loud in front of a camera, but my thoughts are not because of us hunters, it’s not because of what we’re doing or not doing, it’s because 80% of our country is indifferent, they’re completely indifferent to the wildlife resource because they don’t hunt, because they don’t develop a relationship with those ducks, because they don’t care about the habitat, because they don’t study the habitat on how it affects the ducks coming in and them killing those ducks. They’re so removed from that 80% of this country is allowing wetland and wetland wildlife to suffer benign neglect, which is why we’re losing wetlands.
Charlie Pierce: Right.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what scares me the most. It’s like, if I could go back, do an interview again, I’d want to say to anybody listening, a duck hunter is buying a $25 duck stamp that is committed to conservation, go out and buy one. Waterfowl, the name waterfowl just absolutely means wetlands and the reason numbers are declining is because of wetlands loss. Well, it’s not just the duck that I want to go out and shoot and put on a grill, it’s the associated wildlife. But most importantly, it’s us, it’s humans.
Charlie Pierce: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And that’s a canary in the coal mine.
Charlie Pierce: But how do you get that message to the 80% people?
Ramsey Russell: Me, the guy that wants to go pull the trigger is the only one that gives a damn. But yesterday when we had a conversation, it was a conversation back and forth and he kind of asked me, well, why do you choose to interact with nature by pulling the trigger? But for him to say, could I ask him something? And he says, well, I get what you all are doing out here, but I just don’t see myself choosing to interact with nature in the way that you do.
Charlie Pierce: Which is fine.
Ramsey Russell: Which made me turn back around and think to myself, why do I choose to immerse myself in nature with a trigger pull? It was thought provoking, it made me look inward because I’ve never really asked myself that question. Why is it about that makes me want to go out and kill something? I don’t know. It’s who God made me, final answer.
Charlie Pierce: And how we grew up like I did. Listening to my dad’s brothers, every Sunday they had ducks for dinner, at our house, it was Fish Fridays, we’d have ducky something we grew up eating, pretty much, maybe half of the stuff we ate came from the store, the rest of this stuff is the garden, what you call it killed whatever deer. Because my dad taught me, don’t shoot anything you’re not going to eat, not that thing, but he was trying to teach me at a young age that you’re not killing something just to kill it. You’re using that resource. I’d love to talk and I don’t meet many people to actually talk to that guys that get into hunting that don’t have any background, like their father never took them, I know what drives me, but what drove those people that don’t have that background?
Ramsey Russell: That’s a good topic, I’d like to know that. I’ve also wondered that myself because I’ve had clients that go to Argentina and they didn’t start duck hunting until they were 45, 50 years old. And I’ve never really had that conversation. Why did you start at this age? What was missing in your life that this feels? I know, because as far back as I can remember, I was a part of it.
Charlie Pierce: But see, if we could figure that out, maybe we could get more people involved.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a good point.
Charlie Pierce: Because there’s not as many young people getting involved.
Ramsey Russell: And the hunters that we do have, especially the waterfowl hunters, there’s such a decreasing rate of available habitat and access that we remaining waterfowl hunters are becoming highly concentrated, highly distilled in a much smaller amount of area, which is a shit show.
Charlie Pierce: It is.
Ramsey Russell: Try to hunt public.
Charlie Pierce: Yeah, it’s terrible.
Ramsey Russell: It’s not that hunters are bad people. I mean, last subject, come down here to Eastern Maryland, come down here to this show, there ain’t no strangers unless you want to be. I mean, we’re all sitting out eating, I don’t know, the swan antique store downtown Easton, somebody invited somebody and I show up and we’re sitting on the street corner and somebody’s shucking oysters and walked through the antique store, look at some cool decoys and stuff, I must have talked to 50 people who didn’t know nobody. They were just walking by and started eating oysters and talking, because we’re all kind of birds of a feather. And out here at Eastern Maryland, whether you’re in the auditorium or at the duck calling contest, I mean, there ain’t no strangers.
Charlie Pierce: Yeah. And the community accepts it here.
Ramsey Russell: Hunters are good people until you put – all right, now, look here son of a bitch you get over there and downwind my decoy, you’re enemy a number one. But otherwise, we’re good people, we get along.
Charlie Pierce: Yeah. I agree with you.
Ramsey Russell: Here’s what I want to end, because we’re running out of time here. But here’s what I want to end with you. Talking about this Easton Maryland Waterfowl Festival, man named Teddy Hoover called me up 6 months ago and asked me to come and judge a waterfowl duck calling contest, I said, no, trust you, me, I can call a duck, but who am I to judge somebody at that skill level? And that boy wouldn’t take no for an answer. And here I am and thank goodness, because I’ve always wanted to come to this waterfowl festival, never had, but here I am. Kind of crafted my North American tour to come through here, it won’t be the last time, I’d like more to add this to my regular schedule of stops and it’s crazy how this is not, like, just an auditorium or a building or a convention hall, it’s the entire community, it’s epic. How long have you been coming to Easton Maryland Waterfowl Festival?
Charlie Pierce: Since it started. I mean, when I was a kid, my father, the first show and he’s been honored down here and it wasn’t until he got older that we just simply couldn’t make it down here. Since the beginning of COVID is when we stopped doing the show. So it was probably the first 47 years of the show and I brought him down to Tuesday because the event lasts all week, but originally, when they started the show, it was because hunting the second, the split from the early scenes always came back on this weekend and so there was so many hunters that would come in and I don’t know the guy, if you did the little history on the show, which Mr. Walsh, who did the Outlaw Gunner book, he was instrumental in starting this show. And that’s why when you go into high school and artifacts, they have that sculpture and now his son, who just redid that book, but his dad was a fascinating man, Joe Walsh. And I don’t know how much money they’ve raised, but Easton knows, I mean, the money from the economy, from hunting and everything is big to this community. And I guess there’s a lot of communities like that around America, I guess, I don’t know.
Ramsey Russell: No, I wouldn’t say there’s many like this. I’ve seen some communities like this, but I’ve not seen anything like this.
Ramsey Russell: Started one part of town and there’s punt guns, battery guns and decoys that are shoot, man, all the way back to the beginning, up to the modern day waders or decoys or calls, it is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, I love it here, man. It is incredible. And I tell you, I did not expect this.
Charlie Pierce: What did you expect?
Ramsey Russell: I don’t know what I expected, but I can tell you, going into judge at duck calling, didn’t want to do it, didn’t like it, won’t do it again.
Charlie Pierce: Glad you had the experience.
Ramsey Russell: I’m very glad, it was very edifying. Because it made me realize how lazy or unskilled I am with a duck call, I can call a duck in. I’m like a college kid playing an ukulele on his dorm bed, those guys are Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, they are playing at such a high level and the kids blowing those goose calls and the goose calling, holy cow, man, it was unbelievable. What I didn’t expect, like, when you’re sitting in the chairs looking at the stage and the guys right there doing their thing, they’re calling the sound great, good, but you get down that judging booth, you can’t see nothing. And it sounds like a flock of 50 freaking mallard just landed on that stage and found a bait pile and are going to town and calling all their buddies to come join them, it is unbelievable. And it really made me think and regard it at a lot higher level than I had ever considered competitive calling. And I know it’s like I told those boys from the PBS, can we talk about the tradition and the culture and hand me down? I said, you got to realize because they were wowed because they’d never seen anything like it and I said, you got to understand, every person on that stage was a knee high little boy going to blind with his daddy at one time, that’s what hunting means. They’ve taken that one segment of duck hunting or goose hunting to a whole another level. And I don’t know, it makes me feel good, I tell you that. I will add Eastern Maryland to my -I’ll be here for as long as I can make it out here, I will be, because I enjoy the people, I enjoy walking around having conversations and everybody from just teenage kids that are going hunting tomorrow to guys that have been carving like your dad for decades.
Charlie Pierce: How many relationships did you make just in this one weekend? That you’re going to call up and people right – I’m going to text you and bug you, now that I know your phone number, you shouldn’t have gave it to me.
Ramsey Russell: No, that’s good. Charlie, I appreciate you and I’m going to see you again, thank you very much for coming over this morning. And I’m going to hold you to next year, next time I come here, I want to go back and get the tour. I’ve heard you all got quite a collection of local decoys and photos and memorabilia there.
Charlie Pierce: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: I didn’t even get to see that, I could’ve go to the shop. But I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface on what’s going on here. Thank you very much.
Charlie Pierce: Yeah, thank you.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, you all been listening to my buddy Charlie Pierce and they don’t do a big web page and they don’t do a lot of social media because right now, as you can imagine, the local hunting culture, the demand for their decoy to hunt over real decoys instead of made in China plastic is so immense that it’s word of mouth. But you all can look up Pierce decoys in Havre de Grace. Reach out if you’d like to and I encourage you to. And if you ever find yourself in this part of the world, by all means, add the Easton Waterfowl Festival to your things must do list. Thank you all for listening to episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.
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